Dec 10

Book Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Bullshit Jobs: A TheoryBullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

Is there anyone who has never had or at least heard of someone who had a bullshit job? How can you not want to read a book about this phenomenon, based on the 2013 article by the author which went viral? I heard about it from a podcast and then tracked down the article and wanted to learn more. The author expanded the article to a 13 hour audiobook. Surely there are amazing insights based on deep research into the subject and the book would be fascinating. Well, yes and no.

The book does have a lot of in-depth research. It discusses the western world’s relationship to work and money, at least from Greco-Roman influences through the Middle Ages and then the Industrial Revolution. Graeber makes some interesting points, that in England in the Middle Ages, working for someone else is what you before you became an adult, so there was a holdover mentality for a few generations that if you weren’t working for yourself you weren’t quite as adult as those who were. That was interesting. And he brought about the Calvinist ideas that work was supposed to equal suffering, that enjoying work made it “not work” and therefore not something that pleased God. But these examples were all Anglo examples, and Graeber says that the bullshitization of jobs is a global phenomenon.

It’s an interesting conundrum: why is a preschool teacher, who absolutely and certainly contributes a tangible benefit to society, earn so little she can’t support herself, while an executive of a bank, whose work can easily be described as “useless” or “parasitic” rake in beaucoup bucks? Graeber claims it’s because those with useless jobs deeply envy and resent those who actually do some good. He makes some other assertions which I think were not really well founded, such as that the military is one of the few truly altruistic avenues open to working-class Americans, because becoming an artist or academic who earns a living is not open to that class of people. I disagree with this. I think many people join the military because they want to serve their country, but that the pay and education benefits are not secondary, as Graeber asserts. Also, some people think that shooting guns and flying helicopters is wickedly good fun, and way better than living at home with their parents. I also think that academia is, while not a mertiocracy, at least nominally open to a few poor kids of exceptional talent.

Graeber doesn’t think much of bullshit jobs. He reiterates that these jobs are psychically abusive, and also claims that they are rife with sado-masochistic power struggles between bosses and underlings. I’ve had sadistic bosses, (or at least weak mealy-mouthed losers who constantly criticized me because they couldn’t handle the fact that I saw through their lies and pegged them for incompetent, and I’m not gonna name names, but you know who you are, asshole.) but you’re just as likely to get a “sadistic” boss in a non-bullshit job, such as fry cook, as you are in a bullshit job, such as intake adjustment coordinator. The example he gave of sadism was what I’d call simply stupid power plays. Sadistic, in my opinion, is when someone delights in the suffering of others. Wanting to boss people around, or criticizing underlings for mistakes even when the underling didn’t need the criticism is not sadistic, especially if that is your job. He claims that unlike real BDSM play, there’s no safe word. But that’s not true. You can set boundaries at work. You can say “Hey, when you do that, it’s not helpful. Please stop.” Worst case scenario, you can quit. What is “I quit” if not a safe word? Every job has a kind of tedium to it. Even if you have your dream job, there are going to be parts of it you don’t like.

Graber says he doesn’t like to propose solutions because critiques of the book will invariably latch on to the solution and hang the entire book about that. I guess that I’m a critic of the book, and I’m going to latch on to why his solution is flawed. But don’t worry, I have other things to criticize as well. His solution is to give everyone a universal basic income, so that people wouldn’t have to take bullshit jobs. On one hand, I can see the point. What are bullshit jobs if not parasitic placeholders latching on to the few industries which actually produce something of value, such as medicine and academia? If everyone had a universal basic income, everyone would be a parasite off the few people who actually had jobs which produced things. So we actually sort of have a version of that now, it’s just not universal and not government regulated. Bullshit jobs are stupid, but they’re better than shit jobs, and they’re better than not working.

I think if we did have a universal basic income, inflation would quickly take over until it wasn’t enough to support yourself on. An influx of money tends to cause inflation. Kind of like how prices would rise in a gold rush town, or how college educations became increasingly expensive when the government started handing out student loans. I think a better solution to the quandry of “why is it that there’s an inverse proportion to how much someone benefits society and how much they get paid” would be for vital professions to engage in collective bargaining. What if there were a childcare union and they struck for a living wage?

Graeber does say that work is not really about productivity, but on caring. He uses some historical evidence of why the idea became work=productivity and (I’m grossly paraphrasing) it was basically a bunch of Greek dudes trying to prove they could do what women did only better. Work, Graeber says, is actually about being paid to care about things. Farmers are paid to care about their plants. Nurses are paid to care for their patients. Mutual fund brokers are paid to care about your investments. Teachers are paid to care about your education. Most actual production is done by machines, excepting for a few rare exceptions of one-off art. Even small-batch vintners can be said to be paid to care about the wine production, not to actually produce the wine. The yeast is really what’s doing the work. I never thought of it this way.

Graeber has a lot of interesting ideas and factoids in this book. So on one hand, I want some of my friends to read it because I’d like to discuss it with them. On the other hand, I’m not going to recommend it to any of my friends. This was tedious to listen to. The writing is extremely pedantic. Any time someone says “so and so defines X as blah blah blah blah” I just want to slap them. That’s a pet peeve of mine. If I don’t know what a word means, I’ll look it up. Adding the definition is what you do when your teacher assigns a five page report and you only have four pages. Graeber not only defines what he means by “bullshit jobs” he restates it with a bunch of different examples. Like “a dog is an animal that has four legs and barks. Seals bark, but they are not dogs because their back legs are really more like flippers, so we call them seals. A dogwood tree has bark, but it is not a dog because it has no legs at all, only branches and leaves. Cats can sometimes bark, but they are not dogs, even though they have four legs, because they are feline, which is like a dog, but not really.” OMG. STOP. Academic writing is not the same as writing for a general audience. Academics are taught to write poorly. Being able to write poorly is one of the hallmarks of academia; after all, if people can’t easily understand what you wrote, that means you’re smarter than them, right? (This is sarcasm.) The article this was based on was pretty good, but when it came to write a book-length version of it, Graeber slipped back into his academic voice. He padded it too much. This book didn’t need to be 13 hours long. It could have lost 30-40% without losing any valuable content. It’s like he was fighting with invisible opponents and wanted to make sure no one could disagree with him, so he frontloaded all the counter arguments. At one point, he actually attacks a blogger indirectly for a post that someone wrote about his work, the literary equivalent of a vaguebook post, like what I did for comic effect up there in paragraph four. If your point is to “win” the “argument” this is a good strategy. If your point is to create something people actually enjoy listening to or reading, it’s not.

And anyway, I don’t think that he did make his point. People in American culture are taught that work is not supposed to be fun, but that your work defines you. Bullshit jobs sound good on paper, but are not fun, and don’t actually do anything worthwhile. Some people freak out at this and have a crisis of conscience. Other people just cash their checks and convince themselves and others that they perform a vital role in the finance sector. People are really good at handling absurdities. Why else would we be delighted by a cartoon chicken frolicking about while we ate the delicious fried bodies of its kin? Why else would we think it’s cute to tell children that a fat man in red watches their every move and will give them presents (but not poor kids?) Bullshit jobs are not a huge crisis, they’re just one more weird thing about modern life that’s potential fodder for stand up comedians.

He constantly harps on how psychically abusive and soul-crushing it is to have a bullshit job. And yeah, it can be a bit of a downer, but it’s not the worst thing. Going on and on about it, with anecdotes to support your view doesn’t make it more true, any more than shouting or typing in all caps convinces other people of the veracity of your claims. Because a bullshit job is, for most people, better than unemployment by a long shot. What makes a job fun or meaningful is often the company you keep. People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Even saving baby seals for a quarter million a year would suck if you worked for someone you hated. Some people really want to make a difference in the world, while others think that making a difference is “nice to have” and the real point of a job is to be able to sleep under a roof and eat every day.

He says the increase in bullshit jobs is a “global phenomenon” but then his evidence to explain why this happens is basically “the history of Christian Anglo-Americans.” There was some fun stuff in this book, and some interesting facts, but I’m not convinced by his arguments. And oh boy was it tedious to listen to. I was kind of relieved when I got to the end and he declared himself (rather smugly it seemed, though that could have been just the narrator’s tone) to be an anarchist. It made me relax because I finally felt like it was okay to admit he irritated me and I found him pretentious and out of touch.

But the best thing I got out of the book was the feeling that I’m not alone. There are parts of any job that seem pointless and stupid, but my own job is at least not 100% pointless and stupid like some of these examples. And the more he went on and on about how psychically abusive it was to have a bullshit job, the more I thought, “oh, come on, it’s not so bad.” Having to spend some time pretending to work isn’t the same as trying to figure out which bill to pay because you don’t make enough to cover all of them. I don’t think that was the author’s intent, but he gets credit for unintentionally helping me feel better about my work life. I mean, it could be worse.

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